Amateur Space Weekly - February 7

Help NOAA explore Earth, make your own Jupiter pics, and joining the Galaxy Zoo. Every week I recap headlines like these from around the world the feature the growing number of people taking space exploration in their own hands.

  • Featured News: Citizen science saves research on the Milky Way’s dark matter
  • Space Makers: University rocketeers, and programming Nasa’s robots
  • Amateurs in Space: Train to be an astronaut, and teen science in zero-g
  • Exploring Earth: Volunteer to study our own planet, map disasters, better crowdsourced earthquake reports, and fracking maps help medical research
  • Exploring the Solar System: Make pictures of Jupiter, citizen science research from Mars, Poland’s meteor hunters, and a Nasa-sponsored eclipse project
  • Exploring Deep Space: New images for Galaxy Zoo’s citizen scientists
  • Outreach, Tourism, and Other News: World Space Week 2017 to focus on planetary exploration, and fight light pollution

Featured News

Space Makers

Nasa's Student Launch competition challenges teams of undergraduates from across the United States to build high performance rockets. The program is modeled on the space agency's own development process. Teams must pass a series of design reviews in order to continue in the program. NT Daily, the University of North Texas student newspaper, interviewed the undergrad engineers who are competing for the first time. The project has tested their engineering skills - and required learning the art of fundraising.

Nasa named the finalists in its Space Robotics Challenge. Teams from around the world entered the space agency’s competition to improve its space robot’s software. R5 is a bipedal robot that Nasa developed to test exploration concepts. Since the gear of space is designed for astronauts, engineers believe a human shape would make robots more useful. The contest challenges teams to write code that commands R5 to repair the kind of damage that stranded The Martian on Mars. More than four hundred teams registered for the qualifying round. The top twenty teams now enter a virtual competition that will test their code on a simulated R5. The finals will also be virtual - no testing gear on Mars… this time.

Amateurs in Space

A Finnish company plans to let the public compete for spots in an astronaut training program. To get things started it raised €2.2 million through an equity crowdfunding site. The competition, Space Nation, will use an app to test people's mental, physical, and social suitability for being an astronaut. The finalists will participate in a livestreamed training program (think Big Brother meets The Right Stuff). The finalist who performs best and gets the most votes will get a chance to ride a rocket into orbit.

The Student Spaceflight Experiments Program helps communities send middle and high school research projects to the International Space Station. More than sixty-one thousand students in the United States and Canada have participated in the SSEP in its six year history. Your Valley Voice reported on Texas eleventh-graders who will study the plant growth. Innovation Trail reported on the New York high school students who designed a plankton growth in microgravity experiment. WJLA-TV reported on the University of Maryland undergrads whose bacteria experiment launch into orbit this Spring.

Exploring Earth

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has a convenient list of volunteer projects that lets you report rainfall, count whales, analyze satellite pictures of hurricanes and more. Do what you can to help science and make our world a better place.

DigitalGlobe’s open data program will make before-and-after satellite imagery of disaster zones free to emergency responders and humanitarian organizations. The data will include crowdsourced analysis from Tomnod’s community of citizen scientists who will map destruction. The combined data will get help to the people who need it much faster and more efficiently.

Seismologists have developed better maps of earthquake intensity using public reports. The US Geological Survey operates one of the oldest public crowdsourcing projects. The Did You Feel It website collects public reports describing the effects of earthquakes. The USGS then creates maps of earthquake intensity from these "felt" reports for emergency responders. By making more accurate maps of earthquakes' effects, the new research will lead to more effective emergency response and help long term planning for earthquake resilience.

Nationswell reported that SkyTruth’s crowdsourced maps of fracking sites helped medical research. The scientists found a correlation between the density of fracking sites and the number of severe asthma cases.

Exploring the Solar System

Amateurs get a shot at Nasa’s latest images from Jupiter. The Juno spacecraft completed its latest orbit of Jupiter last week when it dipped as low as 4,300 kilometers (2,670 miles) above the giant planet's storm-wracked clouds. JunoCam is the spacecraft's on-board camera. It only got included on the mission for one reason: let the public take pictures of Jupiter. The public can propose and vote for targets for JunoCam to image. Shortly after the data arrives on Earth the mission team posts the images to the JunoCam website. Amateur planetary imagers around the world download the pics and make their own interpretation of the space pictures. 

Scientists with Planet Four: Terrains have submitted their first research paper for peer review. The crowdsourcing project lets thousands of volunteers around the world map “spiders” and “swiss cheese terrain” around the Martian south pole. These features are created as the carbon dioxide frost built up over the Martian winter sublimates back into the atmosphere.

A team of amateur astronomers in the Polish Fireball Network (PKIM in Polish) help professionals study meteors. They host video cameras with wide-angle lenses that capture views of the sky every night. Whenever a large meteor streaks across the sky, the network triangulates the fireball’s trajectory. This lets meteorite hunters predict potential impact sites. It also lets the project trace the original object’s source in the Solar System. Putting the two together - meteorites and their source - lets planetary scientists understand the origins of Earth’s neighborhood. The PKIM published a long term study of the Taurid meteor shower (arXiv: 1701.08990) and a report on a meteorite tracking project (arXiv: 1701.08717)

Nasa highlighted the scientific research projects it will support for this year’s Great American Solar Eclipse… and citizen science is one of them. Space Science Institute researcher Padma Yanamandra-Fisher heads up the program called Citizen CATE (it’s an acronym, roll with it). A network of amateur astronomers, high school students, and university groups will form along the path of the eclipse. They will record video of the event through telescopes which the project’s scientists will combine to create a 90-minute video of the Sun’s corona.

Exploring Deep Space

Galaxy Zoo, one of the first crowdsourced astronomy projects, is still going strong. The project just announced its latest expansion. GAMA-KiDS combines astronomical survey data to give citizen scientists more detailed pictures of galaxies to classify. With the help of space fans around the world, scientists will be able to study the faintest structures in these galaxies. Check out the project's announcement for more details:

Outreach, Tourism, and Other News

The World Space Week Association announced the theme for this October’s events. “Exploring New Worlds in Space” will celebrate the legacy of American and Russian missions through the Solar System and the emerging space explorers around the world. When announcing the new theme, the WSWA’s executive director, Dr. Timiebi Aganaba-Jeanty said “This year’s theme will enable the debates surrounding where we explore next, be it on Moon, Mars or even beyond, to inspire event organizers to set up exciting space exploration events.” Last year more than 80 countries held 2,700 events to celebrate space. You can read more details in World Space Week’s 2016 annual report

Astrophysicist Ramin Skibba reviews efforts to reduce wasted light - and improve its quality - in this piece from Inside Science. Most people cannot see more than a few stars, much less the full glory of the Milky Way. Much of the outdoor lighting shining every night does nothing to illuminate the ground. Besides wasting electricity, the excess light impacts health and the environment.